It’s coming to the end of what has been for me, and for many other New Year’s resolution-keepers, “sugar-free February”. A whole month without any added or refined sugar. This move was partly inspired by my work, and partly inspired by a general commitment to self-care. I wasn’t ready to commit to “Dry-January”, but “Sugar-Free Feb” seemed manageable and aside from a few lapses (Valentine’s day for one), it’s been a successful experiment. I was dutifully horrified by all the things that have needlessly added sugar and so manage to sneak themselves into our diets, and I suspect I’m healthier for it - sugar certainly tastes sweeter now, no pun intended! Working as I do on gastrointestinal health in the nineteenth century, I am regularly visited by contrition as I read periodical essays, short stories, poems, and medical tracts about how important it is to attend to one’s dietetic needs.
The Victorians were preoccupied by food and the practices of eating, and gastrointestinal health was privileged as a lens through which to measure society. This seems particularly germane at a time when we are now more obsessed with our own dietary choices than ever before. Consider the rise of gluten-free, diary-free, vegetarian, vegan, and organic options in the supermarket; consider the obesity and diabetes “epidemics” that feature in the news on an almost daily basis, and it’s not hard to draw parallels between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first. Just this month, we had “roastie-gate” - or “toastie-gate”, depending on your carby preference - where we were told that too crispy a roast potato (or too crunchy a PB and J) might pose a risk to our long term health - a panicked overreaction that appears to have little basis in the science. Whether or not acrylamide poses a tangible risk to our health remains to be seen; however, the regimented attention to correct dietary practices might certainly be traced back to the nineteenth century.
The nineteenth century brought us the beginnings of organised vegetarianism (for health and ethical reasons), the recognition of the dangers of sugar and fat—“Pies and cakes are poisonous”1 (Bow Bells 1871)—and the developing recognition of allergies and intolerances. ‘Strawberries’ noted one writer, as early as 1868, ‘that are so delicious to almost everybody, are poison to many,’ also remarking that figs in some people give rise to ‘a sensation like the tickling movement of ants upon the palate’—a clear description of anaphylaxis.2 Articles explored the value of now-recognised dietary vices with amusingly entitled pretexts like ‘Coffee, is it a food?’ and ‘Alcohol: food, drink or poison?’ In the early decades of the century, our attitudes to sugar were too very different. ‘The plentiful use of sugar in diet is one of the best preventatives that has ever been discovered of the diseases that are produced by worms’, claimed Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, ‘Nature seems to have implanted a love for this aliment in all children, as it were on purpose to protect them from those diseases.’3 The article goes on to deem sugar an antidote to fever, disorders of the breast, and even styles it an antiscurbotic. But the interest comes when the article turns to the aesthetic implications of sugar. The Cochin Chinese, it claims, require the body-guard of the King to take daily amounts of sugar (gotten by a small allowance of money) in order to do honour to their master by their handsome appearance. Indeed, contrary to current trends, the corpulence of an individual was often deemed a measure of their wealth, worth, and beauty. As the century drew on this began to change and the relative desirability of fatness was fiercely debated in the medical and popular press.
‘Is there any harm in getting fat?’ asked articles about diet - a question that now seems bewildering in its naivety. One writer concluded that it is only a problem since the introduction of seats in assemblies and the confined spaces of vehicles (particularly public transport) where ‘fat men and crinolined ladies have become annoyances’.4 In the 1860s, a plethora of articles addressed the ‘Banting method’, which might be taken as a model for the first fad diet. This diet, which will be familiar to you all in one guise of another, consisted of limiting one’s intake of sugar and carbs, and eating more vegetables. Although by today’s standards this “diet” seems more like sensible life style advice, some writers still warned against taking it to extremes and saw it as their duty to remind the public of the bodily requirements of some fat in the diet: ‘Like every man who rides a hobby, having mounted his Pegasus, he would rise till he scorches himself, or sink till he cannot recover. We shall endeavour to rein in this ill-regulated steed.’5 This attitude is unsurprising given that contemporaneous opinion pieces were still celebrating the delights of sugar as ‘not only a condiment; it is a most important article in diet, and aid to digestion’.6 This same article noted that ‘throughout the whole of the great class of animals headed by man, from elephant down to shrew mouse, there is one sort of tooth—the sweet tooth—common to all.’ ‘Even the canary bird understands sugar,’ writes the author, arguing for its function as a tool for garnering affection and training animals.
Along with the growing recognition of the dangers of excess fat, came a sense of social responsibility and a renegotiation of national identity. Depictions of John Bull were particularly controversial, a national representation that The Leisure Hour deemed a ‘sad relic’ at the end of the century.
‘This heavy overfed individual is still held up to our rising generation, and the world, as the type of British perfection […] surely there are members of the Royal Society who could undertake to give us some better representation of a physically perfect gentleman of the nineteenth century?’7
As societal values began to shift, articles encouraged the public to ‘pity’ rather than ‘despise’ those who are overweight, ‘people are often too cruel to the fat person who helplessly plumps down upon them in the crowded ‘bus, or wedges them into a corner in some throng round the door of a place of amusement.’8 However, sentiments like this did little to empower overweight individuals, who were framed as “jolly fat friends” or as miserable loners who lived in denial and helplessness. Both of these perspectives are showcased in a poem published in Fun in 1867, in which an unhappy sugar-broker piles on the pounds following hollow success.
His bulk increased—no matter that—
He tried the more to toss it—
He never spoke of it as “fat”,
But “adipose deposit”.
Upon my word, it seems to me,
'A Discontented Sugar Broker' Fun 1(14 Dec 1867) p.137.
(And worse than that!)
To call your fat,
An “adipose deposit.”
The final lines reveal the bodily impact of his excess weight, as well the social judgement that follows.
Despite the stigmatisation of corpulence that accompanied changes in dietary knowledge, there were some positive lessons that we might benefit from remembering. Writers speculated on the importance of meal size, eating times, the quantity and quality of food, of exercise and of mental attitude in ways that ultimately paved the ways for a more personalised approach to health. Dietetic treatments enabled individuals to take control of their health in new ways, as is evidenced by the many letters written to the popular press reporting of self-experimentation.
In pursuit of the treatment of indigestion, headaches, and depression, the general public experimented with “free from” diets, and many with great success. However, as an article in 1886 highlighted, what was healthy for one person was not always the case for another, ‘in some cases abstention from pastry might be desirable, in others from cheese, and so on.’9 In the Daily Telegraph today (21st Feb) one article criticised the '10,000 steps a day myth' arguing that the one-size fits all rule could do more damage than good. Dr Steve Flatt of Liverpool University is even quoted as comparing the plethora of health-related apps to the 'snake oil salesmen of the 1860s'. Another article, just below that in the print edition, claimed that even yo-yo diets are better than not dieting at all (despite the supporting study having only been carried out in mice). Thus, I think it behooves us all to listen to the good advice of All The Year Round who maintained that ‘in the matter of diet, everyone should be guided by experience and not rely on the experience of others.’10 As I come to the end of what has been a (mostly) sugar-free February, I am pleasantly surprised by what self-experimentation has taught me about my own body. So I'll cross my fingers for continued resolve in the spirit of being attentive to my dietetic needs, as I contemplate taking on “meat-free March.”
--Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown
Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life
1 ‘Notes About Health’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 13(18 Jan 1871)338 p.612.
2 ‘Facts About Food’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 8(15 April 1868)194 p.286.
3 ‘Medicinal and Nutritious Properties of Sugar Cane’ Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal 25(21 Jul 1932) p.195.
4 ‘Corpulence’ The New Monthly Magazine 131(May 1864)521 pp.116-26. (p.116-17).
5 Ibid, p.116.
6 ‘Sweets’ All the Year Round 5(8 Jun 1861)111 pp.246-49. (p.246).
7 Alfred Schofield, 'The Great Food Question’ The Leisure Hour (Sept 1897) pp.736-740. (p.740).
8 ‘Leaves from a London SketchBook’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 29(11 Jan 1895)367 pp.54-55. (p.54).
9 ‘Diet and Dyspepsia’ All The Year Round 37(6 Feb 1886)897 pp.545-48. (p.548).
10 Ibid, p.546.